In search of the Capital of the World

Follow the journey from the beginning …

About fifteen years ago, I opened a folder of news clippings in the archive of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. At that time, the park’s library was nestled into the rafters of the First Bank of the United States, a building from the 1790s that I love for its split personality. Approached from the back, it is an echo of colonial Philadelphia, mostly red brick and unassuming. But walk around to the front, and it announces a new nation’s grand aspirations in marble with forceful neoclassical columns, a two-story portico, and symbols such as the American bald eagle. The building neatly sums up a pivotal time in American history.

Philadelphia RecordBut to return to the story: There in the archive, as I leafed through the news clippings, one stopped me. It was an extra-wide column from a 1945 “sunrise edition” of The Philadelphia Record with the headline, “Philadelphia,—Home of United Nations.” Embedded in the text was a photograph of the tower of Independence Hall, the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

What?

I soon learned that I was not the first to stumble upon this evidence of Philadelphia’s aspirations to become the host city for the United Nations—and by extension, the Capital of the World. But I believe I am the first to have followed the trail to discover that the desire to create such a world capital at the end of World War II was so strong that it stirred up interest in every region of the United States. With no invitation whatsoever from the new United Nations, then just getting organized for the challenges of the postwar era, civic boosters from nearly 250 cities and towns large and small threw themselves into campaigns to win a prize that no one had offered.

Why?

The story I uncovered is now the book Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations. In this blog, I will expand on the story and share some of my experiences in piecing together the adventures and antics of American civic boosters as they injected themselves into deadly serious matters of war and peace at a pivotal time in world history. I will try to offer some links to current events and to make connections for teachers who may wish to share these stories with their students in U.S. and world history classes. There may even be some travel tips along the way (stay tuned for my informal history of the nation’s roadside rest areas and tourist hotels).

The search for the Capital of the World—mine as well as the boosters’ of 1945—is kind of a crazy story. At times, I have envisioned it as a Broadway show because it resonates so perfectly with the era’s popular culture. If you can hum a few bars of  “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” or “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1946), or stir feelings for American places with “Oklahoma!” (1943) or “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (1954), then you already know the score. (Hear some of this in the story that aired February 13, 2013, on PRI’s The World.) But taken all together, it is more than a crazy story. Read on, and see if you agree with me that this little-known episode has much to tell us about how Americans viewed the world—and how the world viewed them—at the end of World War II.